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Liberty Head Eagle, No Motto (1838-1866) | CoinWeek

1839 Liberty Head Eagle. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1839 Liberty Head Eagle. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

President Thomas Jefferson ordered the suspension of $10 gold eagle production in 1804 to stanch the export of gold to Europe due to the Congressionally mandated 15:1 silver-to-gold ratio. Most of the gold coins that the United States Mint issued were struck to order for depositors, and most of these were exported and melted down. Foreign profit-taking meant that few early U.S. gold coins circulated in this country.

In 1838, Congress acted to reduce the weight and diameter of the eagle so that the Mint could reintroduce its flagship coin. On July 27, Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury wrote to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson to instruct him to begin work on the new coin. Three days later, Patterson wrote back to Woodbury, informing him that immediate measures would be taken to prepare dies and that the Mint would “spare no pains to make our chief coin worthy of the Mint.”

A closeup view of Venus as portrayed in West's Omnia Vincit Amor (1809). Image: Public Domain.
A closeup view of Venus as portrayed in Benjamin West’s Omnia Vincit Amor (1809). Image: Public Domain.

The coin was designed by Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht, who based his depiction of Liberty on Benjamin West’s painting Omnia Vincit Amor (1809). The reintroduced denomination saw its weight reduced from 17.5 to 16.718 grams and its diameter shrunk from 33 to 27 millimeters. This led to the colloquial term “Big Eagle” for any $10 gold piece issued through 1804.

Production of the Liberty Head Eagle began on December 6, 1838. This is the date that Patterson refers to in a December 12 letter to Woodbury discussing four coins sent to the Treasury Department for review.

An interesting note about the design is it required 120 tons of pressure from the dies to impart full detail on a struck coin.

Liberty Head Eagle head styles. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
Liberty Head Eagle head styles. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

The 1838 issue and some 1839 coins show sweeping strands of hair pulled back into the bun and partially covering the back of the diadem. In 1839, Gobrecht modified this feature to give Liberty’s hair a more realistic appearance.

Liberty Head Eagles were struck primarily at the Philadelphia Mint, with some overflow production taking place at the New Orleans Mint. The San Francisco Mint struck eagles starting in 1854.

In 1865, Congress passed legislation mandating that the new national motto IN GOD WE TRUST be added to all coin denominations. This feature appeared on the eagle starting in 1866 and is referred to as the With Motto type. With Motto Liberty Head Eagles continued to be produced through part of 1907.

How Much Are No Motto Liberty Head Eagles Worth?

The Liberty Head Eagle was not widely collected throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. When notable American collector Edgar H. Adams published his Official Premium List of United States, Private and Territorial Gold Coins (1909), he observed something that would now be unthinkable, writing:

“[V]ery few of the ten-dollar pieces issued after 1804 bear a premium…”

The same can’t be said today.

Liberty Head Eagles, Without Motto are moderately priced in circulated grades but increase in value in Mint State. Some issues are scarce in Mint State, while others survive only in circulated grades. For type coin collectors, many Philadelphia issues offer affordability. Early San Francisco issues can present quite a challenge in high grades.

Dates selling for higher premiums include the scarce 1838 first year, the 1839 Liberty and letter-size variations, some 1840s and the 1858 Philadelphia coins, many of the New Orleans and San Francisco issues, some of the overdates, and the last half dozen years preceding the addition of the reverse motto in 1866.

Prooflike circulation strikes have been certified, as have coins recovered from the SS Republic shipwreck.

All Proofs are rare and priced accordingly.

Varieties

Varieties include the two Liberty portraits and reverse letter sizes for 1839; the 1839/8 overdate; Large and Small Date versions for 1842, 1850, and 1854-O; and many other overdates, minor design changes, and die variations.

Extended Coverage on CoinWeek

Just How Rare Are Gem $10 Gold No Motto Liberty Head Eagles?

Classic U.S. gold coin expert and CoinWeek content partner Doug Winter has written several articles concerning No Motto Liberty Head Eagles, from in-depth discussions of specific varieties to market analysis.

Design

Obverse:

A classical depiction of Liberty faces left, hair bundled at the back and secured with a beaded tie but with a couple of curls cascading down the neck to the back and the side. The word LIBERTY stretches across a coronet above her forehead. Thirteen six-pointed stars encircle just inside a denticulated rim, broken only by the date at the bottom and offset slightly to the left in 1838 but centered from 1839 forward. Liberty’s portrait was modified in 1839, with changes to the truncation line at the shoulder and in the arrangement of hair over the ear.

Reverse:

A left-facing eagle centers on the reverse, wings outstretched and a shield across the breast. Three arrows are clutched in the eagle’s left or sinister claw (viewer’s right), and an olive branch is held in the eagle’s right or dexter claw. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA circles inside a denticulated rim, broken into three parts by the eagle’s wing tips. At the bottom is the denomination TEN D., separated from the legend by a centered dot on either side. The size of the reverse lettering was reduced in 1839. Coins were struck in Philadelphia (all years), New Orleans (1841-1860), and San Francisco (1854-1866). The fairly large O and S mintmarks are on the reverse, below the eagle and above the denomination.

Edge:

The edge of the $10 gold No Motto Liberty Head Eagle is reeded, a common anti-counterfeiting tactic for precious metal coinage.

Liberty Head Eagle Coin Specifications

Liberty Head Eagle, No Motto
Years of Issue: 1839-66
Mintage (Business): High: 862,258 (1847); Low: 1,218 (1863)
Mintage (Proof): High: 80 (1859, estimated), Low: 1 (1844-O)
Alloy: 90% gold, 10% silver
Weight: 16.72 g
Diameter: 27.00 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: Christian Gobrecht
REV Designer: Christian Gobrecht

 

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References

Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.

Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.

–. Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins: 1795-1933. Whitman Publishing.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Winter, Douglas. Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909. Zyrus Press

Yeoman, R.S. and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
 

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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